The United Auto Workers union is positioning itself as a car company partner rather than an adversary as it renews a campaign to sign up workers at U.S. plants owned by foreign-based car companies.
Yet Bob King, the union's president, said it will play tough with Toyota, Honda, BMW, Hyundai and others if they don't agree to secret ballot election principles that the union is backing. Companies that don't sign on to the principles will be branded as human rights violators, King told an industry group Wednesday.
The UAW has had little success over the past 30 years in organizing workers at U.S. factories owned by Japanese, Korean and German auto companies. The companies built factories mainly in Southern states such as Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky that aren't union-friendly. Many also pay wages comparable to UAW-represented factories owned by Detroit automakers, but the foreign companies have avoided UAW rules that can make plants less efficient.
King, speaking at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit, said the union has learned from the Detroit companies' near-death experience and has eliminated inefficient work rules, job classifications and other issues that foreign companies have feared. Instead, he said, the union understands how globalization has made it necessary for the UAW to help auto companies make money by being more competitive.
"We have paid a deep price for failing to learn this lesson quickly enough," King said. "The UAW has learned from the past, and we have embraced dramatic and radical change."
As General Motors, Chrysler and Ford faced severe financial problems in 2009, the union agreed under pressure from Congress to scrap the "jobs bank," in which laid-off workers got most of their pay indefinitely for doing nothing. Now they get some pay for up to two years but can lose it if they turn down a job at a different factory.
The union also has agreed to let the companies pay newly hired workers around $15 per hour, about half the hourly wage of a longtime UAW worker.
The union, though, still is seeking a "fair deal" with the companies, which means pay and benefits that can sustain a middle class, King said.
The UAW wants the companies to agree to a secret ballot election without threatening workers that the factory will close if it's unionized, and to give the union equal campaign time to woo workers, King said.
For those who don't agree, the UAW will hold demonstrations and campaign with consumers to make its human rights point, King said.
"I would be very, very concerned if I was an auto manufacturer, of having young people, college students, young college graduates, feel that I was a human rights violator," he said.
Toyota spokesman Mike Goss wouldn't comment on King's speech. Messages were left with BMW and Hyundai officials.
At the Detroit auto show earlier this week, a top Honda executive said the decision on joining the UAW is up to the workers.
"They've never seen the need, so far, to have anybody intervene on their behalf, work in partner with them, and I think that continues to be their decision, not ours," said John Mendel, executive vice president of sales for American Honda, which has several factories in central Ohio.
The UAW is pushing for additional members at the Southern plants in part to boost membership, which has fallen from a high of 1.5 million in 1979 to around 350,000.